Neighborly Comfort Food

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

You know your slightly creepy neighbor? The one with the bad breath and no personal boundaries?

Well, he's at the center of Jonathan Caren's world premiere play at Rogue Machine Theater -- Need to Know.

Steven and Lilly have just moved back to New York. Things didn't go quite like they expected in LA. Lilly's book didn't get optioned and Mark lost his gallery representation. But they're young and beautiful so now they're back in New York sort of starting over. You know this couple ... or at least you've seen them, or their vacations, on facebook.

They're just moving into their tiny apartment as the play opens. Everything's going swell until Mark sticks his head in and catches Steven in his underwear. Mark is their neighbor. He's that neighbor: the kind that's seems sweet but also a little unsettling. He won't really leave. Coincidence of coincidences, he's a writer too -- just like Lilly. He's just finished a young adult novel - called Deformed.

That's our macguffin.

The second Mark finally leaves, Steven and Lilly rip into him. They google him. They mock his book and sweater vest photos. Basically they engage in a little real-life trolling. The only trouble is, like a lot of New York apartments, the walls are paper thin and Mark overhears everything.

Then as they say - we're off to the races.

At the start, Jonathan Caren's play feels like it's going to be an interesting and possibly disturbing take on our Internet culture. In a world where everyone is oversharing what does privacy really mean? Can you really start over when your entire past is digitally archived and readily available to any curious stranger?

That's not where we end up. Need to Know ultimately is a variation on the 'lovable but awkward troll living under the bridge' story. Internet intrigue gives way to familiar relationship territory. Can we ever really know the person we're in love with? You've seen this before. The ending is a little too simple the final twists unsupported. Basically, it's carefully plotted, 'what's going to happen next?' theatrical comfort food.

The reason to go see it, like most shows at Rogue Machine, is for the acting. The cast is spot on. Bart DeLorenzo's direction crisp and inciteful. Tim Cummings plays the neighbor Mark as a tightrope walk: balanced between stalker-creepy and oddly sympathetic. The play hinges on us not really being sure who this guy is and Mr. Cummings manages to stay one step ahead of us without telegraphing what's coming next. At the play's dramatic climax, he reveals the play's soul to be an impassioned plea for what it really takes to be an artist. His performance is worth the 90 minutes.

This isn't the meaty complicated fare that's at the soul of Rogue Machine but it's another solid production that's adding to Rogue Machine's reputation as one of the most consistent and exciting small theaters in Los Angeles.

And that's worth supporting.

Need to Know plays at the Rogue Machine Theatre on Pico through December 21.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 95 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: (L-4) Corryn Cummins, Tim Cummings and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe in Need to Know (John Perrin Flynn)